Farmers markets are as hot as a chili pepper. New ones are popping up all over and attracting larger growers who once sold just to wholesalers and chain grocers.

Only time will tell if the trend is sustainable. But for now the markets have momentum as a variety of forces converge. More consumers are looking for fresher food grown closer to home, more restaurants are participating in a “buy local” movement and more produce growers are looking for additional sales outlets.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey for 2011 found nearly 7,200 farmers markets operating nationwide, up 17 percent for the year, or about 1,000 more markets than were reported in 2010. There probably are more, since the figures reflect only those markets that responded to the questionnaire.

The USDA is promoting the direct farm-to-family concept as another way Americans can be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, particularly fresh ones.

Surveys have shown that consumers covet farmers markets, where stalls and tables are piled high with cucumbers, unshucked corn, ripe blueberries, melons, beans and greens of all kinds.

There is the nostalgia aspect—the markets evoke a small town, rural Americana feel— and a perception of freshness, with friends and neighbors congregating outdoors.

The markets can be educational as well, as a pile of sweet potatoes with a little dirt still on them helps teach children where their food comes from.

Fans say there are other good reasons to drop a few dollars at the markets. They support local farmers, providing another outlet for growers and vendors who may lack the volume to sell to big suppliers.

Reducing the distance between the field, farmer and dinner plate is a positive, though that benefit may be overblown, industry specialists say. A head of broccoli, cauliflower or other crops picked, chilled, packed, properly stored and shipped to supermarkets may be just as nutritious—or more so— than the same food that travels from a field to pickup truck to a hot parking lot at the farmers market.

Some studies also have found it takes less energy per pound to ship a semi-trailer full of produce to a grocery store than it does for all of the shoppers to drive to a farmers market and buy a few pounds each of produce.

Competition heats up

DePalma Farms of Ripon, Calif., sells its fresh peaches, cherries, persimmons, almonds, walnuts and other crops at more than a dozen farmers markets in 12 California cities, including five markets in nearby Stockton.

The family farm, in business since 1951, also supplies a small grocery chain and sells seasonal gift baskets that can be ordered by phone.

In California, most farmers markets are “certified”–vendors must show that they, their family or immediate employer actually grow the produce they’re selling.

That’s in contrast to most other farmers markets nationwide, which often accept re-sellers who collect produce from multiple sources to boost the selection of fruits and vegetables.

Dominick DePalma, owner of DePalma Farms, says that while his family has been selling at farmers markets since the 1970s, the competition has gotten tougher.

More markets are open on different days of the week and at more locations, which is good for consumers but places more demands on suppliers.

“Now there’s one a mile down the road just about everywhere,” DePalma says. “Plus, with the weak economy, the markets are slower. I sell peaches and people now want to buy one peach. And they’ll say ‘how much is that peach?’”

But selling a single peach or slicing open a melon to offer free samples is the kind of customer service that keeps shoppers—and sociable vendors—coming back year after year.

Growing pains

The hugely successful Portland (Oregon) Farmers Market, for example, has grown to include about 250 vendors at six markets.

And 22 vendors at the flagship market held on Saturdays at Portland State University have been there from the start, 20 years ago. One of the inaugural vendors, Jeff Falen of Persephone Farms in Lebanon, Ore., credits the market with making it possible for him to thrive on a smaller scale than would have been possible otherwise.

“When I started [the farm] in 1985, farmers markets were few and far between,” Falen says.

Selling wholesale and competing against the larger growers on volume was the only option, and not a very sustainable one.

Now, the non-profit market serves about 700,000 customers at its six locations, generating nearly $8 million in revenue divided among the vendors, such as Falen.

Megan Clark, sales manager for C&R Farms in Palisade, Colo., says her family’s orchard gets about a third of its annual income selling cherries, nectarines, plums, pears, apples and other fruit to about 20 farmers markets in the Denver area. Another third is generated through fund raisers and the balance through sales to a regional supermarket chain.

Ironically, the popularity and proliferation of farmers markets has indeed made it more challenging for growers who supply them, Clark says.

“There are so many now, that has become an issue. Instead of 20 boxes [of fruit] at one location, you may sell two boxes at 10 locations. We’ve tried to stick to our older, more established markets and the ones that don’t charge as much.”

State-run wholesale farmers markets

In Florida, the largest producer of fresh vegetables for the eastern United States, there are more than 120 farmers markets selling direct to the public. They are scattered across 44 of the state’s 67 counties, 13 in Miami-Dade alone.

Florida does not have a market certification program like those in California and Nevada. But the state does have something that many do not have: a network of staterun wholesale farmers markets that are strategically located and help service smaller consumer markets.

Farmers can take a big tractor-trailer load of sweet corn to one of the 13 state markets, for example, and a vendor can buy a small load and haul it to a market that sells to the public.

The state-run markets sell more than $225 million worth of Florida fruits and vegetables a year. Since the first one opened in 1935, they have pumped more than $5.5 billion into the farm economy. That’s sweet, by any measure.

For more information, visit the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory at farmersmarkets.usda.gov.